“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” - John Hermes Secondari
Even though Secondari was talking about planes, there’s one woman who embodies the spirit of this quote just as much as any pilot – Oksana Chusovitina, a 46-year-old elite gymnast who has competed in a record-breaking eight Olympics.
In Chusovitina’s very first Olympics in 1992, Simone Biles, and most of her other competitors, had yet to be born. In Women’s Artistic Gymnastics, athletes are considered past their prime at 20 years old. The sport is dominated by teenagers, as well as injuries, which makes Chusovitina’s longevity as an elite gymnast very impressive.
While Chusovitina has found it difficult to say goodbye to gymnastics, she didn’t always foresee such a long and successful career. Born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, she started gymnastics when she was 7 years old, only because of her brother, who ended up quitting after just 3 weeks.
Chusovitina recalled, "My mother did not want me to do gymnastics, she was worried about me all the time. I wanted to prove to her that I was not doing it in vain, and I think that eventually, I succeeded in that." After training with the boys for a year, she fell in love with the sport and that passion has prevailed for almost 40 years. She’s one of only two female gymnasts to ever compete under three different national teams at the Olympics: the Unified Team (of the former Soviet Union), Uzbekistan, and Germany.
Chusovitina’s Early Career
Chusovitina competed for the Soviet Union from the time she was 13, winning two gold medals in 1992 at the World Championships. She won her first Olympic gold medal at 17 years old. She revealed that she believed she would quit after her first Olympics, but after taking a break, she realized it was what she wanted to do. She got back into training and competing and has never looked back.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, she returned to her home country of Uzbekistan to train. The training conditions were less than ideal, having to work with substandard and dangerous equipment. Despite these conditions, Chusovitina was still able to put together high-quality routines. From 1993 to 2006, she earned over 70 medals in international competitions while representing Uzbekistan. She qualified for the Olympics three times throughout these years and was recognized as an Honored Athlete of the Republic of Uzbekistan. They even put her face on a stamp!
Overcoming Personal Tragedy
In 1997, Chusovitina married a fellow Olympic athlete, wrestler Bakhodir Kurpanov, whom she met at the Asian Games a few years prior. In 1999, their son Alisher was born. (Chusovitina is one of only seven elite female gymnasts to return to elite competition after having a child.) Tragically, 3-year-old Alisher was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia in 2002 and needed advanced medical treatment that would cost 120,000 euros. Unable to receive the medical treatment her son needed in her home country and lacking health insurance, Chusovitina was desperate to save her son. She accepted an offer from Shanna and Peter Brüggemann, the head coaches of the Toyota Cologne Club, who helped fund the cost of Alisher's treatment through donations raised by the German Gymnastics Federation.
Suddenly, Chusovitina was thrust into a situation that required moving to a new country to save her son. She had no choice but to move to Germany so her son could get the life-saving medical treatment he needed. The German gymnastics community made this possible through their generous donations, and Chusovitina repaid them by representing Germany in elite competitions.
Chusovitina's luck as a popular and cherished public figure was not lost on her. After all, gymnastics was what enabled her to save her son's life. She said, “Without gymnastics, I couldn't have done anything for my son. I've already said it 100 times and I'm gonna say it another 100 times. Thank you to everybody who was helping Alisher.”
While her son was undergoing medical treatment, Chusovitina continued to perform. She needed the prize money, stating, "If I don't compete then my son won't live, it's as simple as that." While her son was undergoing cancer treatment, Chusovitina leaned into gymnastics more than ever. While the prize money helped pay for her son’s medical bills, her husband also encouraged her to stick with gymnastics as a way to cope.
“If I sat in the hospital day and night, I would either break down physically or go crazy,” she recalled. “I went to the gym and trained – not for results but to distract myself. The gym gave me positive emotions that I could bring back to my son in the hospital.”
Chusovitina wasn’t eligible for citizenship right away, so she continued to compete for Uzbekistan while training in Germany. In 2006, she was awarded German citizenship and began competing for Germany, earning a bronze medal on vault in the 2006 World Championships and placing 9th in the all-around. In 2007, she became the oldest female gymnast to win a silver medal at the Olympics. It wasn't until the 2008 Beijing Olympics that she won her first individual Olympic medal which was silver on vault. While she was proud of her accomplishment, nothing could compare to the news she would get upon arriving home.
Just after the Olympic Games, Chusovitina received news that Alisher's leukemia was in remission, and it was "the greatest news of all." Stating why winning the medal wasn't the most memorable part of her Olympics, she said, "Right after I won my Olympic medal, I got on the phone with my son’s doctor and he told me, ‘your son is leukemia-free.’ Many people think this is the most memorable Games for me because I won for a different country, an Olympic silver medal. But none of the medals will beat the news of your child’s health.”
Will She or Won’t She Retire?
The gymnastics world has learned not to take Chusovitina’s word as gospel when announcing that she’s retiring. Over her career, which has spanned over a quarter of a century, she has announced that she would be retiring a total of three times. Chusovitina previously announced she would retire after the 2009 World Championships, then after the 2012 London Olympics, and then after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
However, each time, she has defied her own statements. Her most recent retirement announcement sparked a standing ovation from the crowd at her final vault performance, where she failed to qualify for the vault final in Tokyo. The crowd moved her to tears. However, just a couple of months later, she’s announced yet again that she is not retiring. It’s important to her that she finishes her career earning a medal for Uzbekistan because she has earned medals for Germany and the Soviet Union, but not for her home country. She announced the news on an Instagram story that read "I want to tell everyone that I have decided to prepare for the Asian Games 2022. I just can't finish my career without a medal for Uzbekistan."
She has previously come out of retirement citing the very same reasons. While she initially wanted to take home an Olympic medal for Uzbekistan, she was unable to achieve this in Rio or Tokyo and has settled for a medal from the Asian Games, in which she has historically performed very well. Going more into detail about why earning a medal for Uzbekistan before retiring is so important to her, she said, “If you try and it doesn’t happen you will know you tried. If you never try, you will always regret it.”
Chusovitina became the only active gymnast to be inducted into the International Gymnast Hall of Fame in 2017. When accepting the award, she joked about how she thinks the award is for people who have retired and attributed her longevity in the sport to a relatable need to defy her mother’s wishes.
“I would like to thank my mother for longevity in the sport because she’s the one who didn’t want me to do it, I wanted to prove her wrong. With any child, you just want to do the opposite of what your parent tells you,” she said.
While many are drawn to Chusovitina because of her age-defying success in the sport, make no mistake, Chusovitina isn’t just “good for her age.” She’s a force to be reckoned with. Throughout her career, she's won two Olympic medals: a gold on team floor in 1992 and a silver on vault in 2008. She also has 11 World Championship medals and 8 Asian Games medals, to name a few of the most prestigious gymnastics competitions. While Chusovitina has managed to avoid serious injuries by adapting the way that she trains, this doesn’t discourage her from competing at a high difficulty level.
She has five eponymous skills (gymnastics skills that are named after her) in the Code of Points on three different apparatuses. Two of them are on vault, two on uneven bars, and one on floor. For a skill to be named after you in gymnastics, you have to submit a unique skill that has never been landed before to the Code of Points, and then you must successfully perform that skill without falling at the World Championships. The first skill to be named after her was performed at her first World Championships in 1991. It was a full-twisting double layout. To put the level of difficulty of this move in perspective, Simone Biles, the reigning women's artistic gymnast who is considered unbeatable, still competes with this skill on floor, 30 years later.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, at 41 years old, Chusovitina performed the Produnova vault, which has the highest possible difficulty rating in the sport, tied with “the Biles,” but at the time of the 2016 Olympics, this vault had a higher difficulty score than Biles’ vault. It consists of a front handspring onto the vault followed by two tucked front saults. It’s nicknamed the "vault of death" because of its extreme difficulty and likelihood to result in injury. The vault is so feared and dangerous because if it's not performed properly, a gymnast can easily land on their back or neck, which could cause fatal injuries. When Biles was asked if she would attempt the Produnova vault, she responded with “I’m not trying to die.” Chusovitina successfully performed the vault without injuring herself but fell on the landing, which dropped her to 7th place. She’s one of only five female gymnasts to ever attempt it in an international competition.
Chusovitina has explained that she avoids serious injuries by adapting her training methods compared to when she was young. She doesn’t train as many hours as her fellow teenage or twenty-something colleagues. Instead of putting in long hours many days of the week and relying on physical training, she relies more heavily on mental training and muscle memory. The past 38 years of experience have enabled her to put in two and a half hours at the gym and then visualize the rest. Despite Chusovitina's caution, she's still had her share of injuries over her career.
A 2004 leg injury relegated her to performing solely on vault in the 2004 Olympics. She tore her Achilles tendon at the Swiss Cup in 2008 and tore a bicep tendon just before the Beijing Olympics, which required a shoulder operation. Then, she suffered from a foot and ankle injury at the Asian Games in 2014 which prevented her from competing in the all-around competition. Gymnastics isn’t for the faint of heart – injury is nearly synonymous with the sport and falling a prerequisite.
With the announcement that we haven’t seen the last of her in elite competition just yet, we have to wonder, will Oksana Chusovitina ever stop? At 46 years old, performing high difficulty routines that are on par with her teenage competitors, and in the best shape of her life, I’m predicting that even the Asian Games won’t be enough to quench Chusovitina’s thirst for gymnastics.
Just as Secondari so eloquently put it, once you’ve tasted the upper limits of human capabilities, you never want to give it up, and Chusovitina has proved to all the doubters that you don’t have to.
“I’m not proving anything to anyone, I just want to prove it to myself,” Chusovitina has said about her persistence. Well, one thing’s for sure - whether she meant to or not, her print will forever be left on the sport and will inspire many more women to keep going when they may doubt their ability to continue. Like Neo in The Matrix, Chusovitina persists because she chooses to – even if her fellow competitors call her Grandma Chusovitina.
We want to know what you think about Evie! Take the official Evie reader survey.